Until he was about 9.5 months old, my oldest son clung to me desperately, his tiny fingers digging into my side 24 hours a day. He needed me then, to feed him, to keep him safe, to carry him from one fascinating place to another.
Then he learned to walk, and instantly I became less than essential. Sure, he still clung to me at night, nursing for hours on end. Sure, he still depended on me to bring him food and change his diapers. But, once he discovered mobility, my importance in his world decreased immensely. When other little ones were snuggling with their moms at story time, he’d be prowling through the aisles of the library on his own.
He loved me, yes. But did he need me? He didn’t seem to think so.
He’s a freckle-faced, gel wearing, too-cool-for-school 11.5-year-old now. He spends most of his time listening to Green Day on his headphones and bargaining for phone time. I can still make him laugh and he still likes for me to tuck him in (when his dad isn’t available), but otherwise my primary function in his world is to buy him things and take him places.
Often it seems that I spend the biggest part of our time together shooting down his dreams. No, I won’t buy you those hundred dollar sneakers; no you can’t blast AC/DC in the car. No, you can’t eat half a chocolate cake before dinner.
It wears away on our relationship, this constant negativity. I don’t like it and he doesn’t either. Sometimes it feels as though all those no’s have piled into an insurmountable wall between us. I can feel that wall rise up between us when he slumps down beside me in the passenger seat, headphones on, eyes averted, grumbling about my terrible music choices; when he stomps up to his room because I won’t let him take a chocolate bar for school snack; when he steps away from my hug after I made him get off of the computer and play outside.
So, last week, I tried something new. I started saying yes before he even asked.
I greeted him after school with a big hug (which he shirked) and a chocolate cupcake (which he devoured with a huge smile). I surprised him with a trip to the shoe store to buy any pair he wanted (within reason). When we got back to the car, I put on his Guns N’ Roses Pandora station without him even asking.
For one whole afternoon, he didn’t pester, and I didn’t say no. He made more eye contact with me than he had in months. We smiled and laughed together. At bedtime he sought me out to give me the biggest, warmest hug he’s given me since he was a toddler.
It felt good. So good. Good enough to make me wish every day could be like that.
Obviously, buying him everything he wants all the time is not an option. But maybe there was some way I could bring a little bit of that day into the rest of our lives.
So, I kept on saying yes. And not just after hours of nudging, but before he even asked. I brought him things. A cookie when he was reading, his favorite baseball cap right before he left for school, a drink of water when he was outside playing. Little things I hadn’t done for him in years. Because I had been busy. Because he could do have done it himself. Because he hadn’t needed me.
They were just little gestures on my part. But, it made an enormous difference in our relationship. He smiled more, laughed more often, sat closer to me on the couch. He even started keeping me company while I made dinner. I’d shuffle around the kitchen while he chattered on about his friends and baseball and Instagram, all the things that make his pre-teen heart skip a beat.
And I’d listen, really listen… even when I’d rather have been chatting with my friend or checking my phone.
The difference in his behavior, the softening of his posture, the smile in his eyes made me wonder how I’d let things get this far. How often had I mistaken a break in connection for a normal developmental stage?
Having three kids, it can be easy to see one child’s independence as a way to catch a break, to have time to focus on the others, even on myself. These are all important things. But, it can’t be done at the cost of our relationship.
If taking the time to do special things for my son is what it takes to keep our connection strong, then I’ll keep on saying yes. Before he even asks.